Intelligence, like most words, can be used as a descriptive for many things.
In the title above, the first instance of the word intelligence means information gathering. Now there are a lot of different reasons to gather information, and I don't mean seeing what discounts are available for shopping at the mall. I mean spy stuff. National Security Intelligence. FBI, CIA and NSA intelligence. Finding out what people are up to and whether that is a danger to the American People, or at least our Ruling Class. [Even referring to the ruling class got you classified as a likely Communist back in J. Edgar Hoover's day.]
The second instance of the word intelligence in the above title means something like "accurate analysis of the situation" or perhaps wisdom. It could mean using good judgment in deciding what is important to protect about the American People, and how to do it.
The U.S. government has spent vast sums of money over the decades gathering intelligence. Yet the second form of intelligence, displaying wisdom based on the intelligence gathered, has been sadly (but not completely) lacking.
The 911 fiasco, in which the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were destroyed or damaged by hijacked civilian airliners on September 11, 2001, are the best known example. An army of FBI, CIA, and NSA agents had been gathering intelligence on Islamic jihadist groups, including Al-Qaeda, for years. Many of the operatives had been tracked to the U.S. and were known to the FBI to be attending flight schools. Yet no one stopped them except the passengers on Flight 93.
There has been little improvement since then. In fact, under the leadership of President George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the situation has grown into a tragic farce. The Homeland Security and National Security budgets since 2001 have essentially bankrupted the nation. The few hundred members of Al-Qaeda and similar groups have expanded into an international army of at least 100,000 with tens of millions of supporters and sympathizers.
There are so many factors leading to the lack of an intelligent approach to protecting America that I can only touch on some of the major and more interesting ones in this essays.
George Washington was a terrorist. Andrew Jackson was a terrorist. Jefferson Davis was a terrorist. So was Harry Truman. So is Barack Obama. The inability to reflect accurately on America's past, and on its current internal situation, creates a fog of stupidity and moral laxness that makes it essentially impossible to accurately distinguish friends from foes and to sort out the most dangerous foes.
Terrorism (or political violence, if you will) works, sometimes, as George Washington, Lenin, Muhammad himself, General Franco, and many other founders of governments have demonstrated. But it doesn't always work, for as many reasons as there all variables in the world. Psycho Killers do not usually become heads of state. Terrorism works best when it is part of a larger agenda that includes something that a majority of people like, or at least are not willing to risk dying to oppose.
Nationalism, religion, and political partisanship are three large scale value sets that power-seekers, including terrorists, can use to further their agendas. But entirely peaceful people may use these to further their agendas too. But there are other nuts and bolts that don't involve violence and can be used by the power hungry to expand their organizations. Hitler's Nazis helped unemployed World War I veterans and sold their own brand of cigarette to finance their party. Eliminating other forms of crime (theft in particular) is another winner, used by the Taliban and the many political parties, left right and center, to gain popular approval.
But beyond the big picture stuff that helps us understand human nature and social dynamics, there are the institutional flaws that have characterized U.S. intelligence services since their inception, and seem to multiply the more money they are given. Some of these are described in detail for the FBI in Enemies: A History of the FBI, by Time Weiner.
The FBI was created to fight the working class, and particular any socialist, syndicalist or communist manifestations of working class power. It largely ignored the threats of organized crime and right-wing ideologies like fascism. Switching to fighting Islamic radicals after nearly a century of fighting communism is a big switch. How many FBI agents understand Islam? How many have bothered to read the Koran, or the folk tales that are associated with it? More important, how many can spot the difference between loose, angry talk, and the quieter people who actually do operations?
The NSA was created to spy on other military commands and spy agencies. You would think it would be a piece of cake for them to spy on groups who are armed with second-hand AK47s. But apparently it isn't.
Don't even get me started on the CIA. The Agency often has good analysts sitting at desks, but seems to have a disconnect between good analysis and any kind of operations that would slow down groups like Al-Qaeda or the self-styled Islamic State.
The Special Forces are good at killing people, as long as they have technical superiority and overwhelming force. But they panic when the going gets rough, as in the Black Hawk Down incident.
The real lack of intelligence is in our national leadership, and here I include Congress, military leaders, top bureaucrats, and corporate leaders as well as whichever puppet happens to be playing President at the moment. The whole system is get-along go-along, backslapping, unable to change to meet the requirements of the times. The only analysis most Congressmen are good at is how to raise enough money for the next election campaign. There may be occasional shows of real intelligence by any of the American leadership, but they are usually vetoed by the rest of the lot.
Here is a simple to do list that would eliminate 90% of the terrorist threat and cost almost nothing:
1. Make peace with Iran. End the embargo unconditionally. Same with Syria.
2. Guarantee human rights for Palestinians and allow them to set up their own state independent of Israel.
3. Release all political and religious prisoners.
4. Support a global non-sectarian agenda.
5. Stop meddling in the sovereign affairs of other nations. Recognize all governments on a de facto basis. Be as friendly as possible.
6. Hold trials in the U.S. for our own war criminals. Join international conventions to police all war crimes and crimes against humanity.
7. Allow Iraq and other artificial states to fragment or join together according to their own wishes. An international peace conference in the Middle East and recognizing people's right to national self-determination could accomplish this.
8. Reduce the homeland security budget by 75% and focus on actual human agents and analysts gathering human intelligence, rather than trying to spy on every American all the time.
9. Focus on fixing the potholes in the U.S. Return to the Jeffersonian ideal of a coastal navy and a minimalist armed forces.
Well, that isn't going to happen. So how about this: find good people and befriend them. They are your best defense, at home and abroad, against religious crazies, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist.
Ultimately, no matter how much information the spies' computers pick up, real human beings need to interpret that data. If higher-ups dismiss important information while concentrating on the trivial, as happened with the 911 disaster, having massive amounts of intelligence gets the same result as having no intelligence at all.